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The City That Has Its Own Operating System

In the first episode of the UK Motherboard Show, we visit Bristol’s smart city project and talk hyperconnected futures.

From talking toasters to self-aware fridges, more and more devices are getting connected as part of the much-hyped Internet of Things. But one UK research project is taking the idea of digitizing everything well beyond personal devices: It's connecting a whole city.

Bristol Is Open is managed in collaboration between Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol. It'll see all manner of sensors—think traffic lights, pollution sensors, and CCTV cameras—hooked up to a citywide network that will carry massive amounts of data for the university's supercomputer to make sense of. The team prefers the term "programmable city" to "smart city": The aim is to use this urban data to reconfigure all aspects of city life to "program" Bristol into a more efficient, democratic, and generally nicer place to live for its almost half-million residents.


That's the dream, but there are obvious concerns too. Who has access to this data? What happens when something malfunctions? What if it's hacked?

As a pioneer of smart cities in the UK, Bristol Is Open is turning over these questions as it goes. Though the infrastructure is being rolled out in a real city, it's experimental in nature. "A city as a laboratory where the citizens are not treated as guinea pigs is how we describe it," said Stephen Hilton, Director of Futures at Bristol City Council.

Three fast networks make up the backbone of the project: a "wireless mile;" a mesh network bouncing across 1500 lampposts; and a superfast fibre network running through abandoned cable TV ducts that the Council had the foresight to buy up 10 years ago.

The brains of the project can be found at the University of Bristol, where Professor of High Performance Networks Dimitra Simeonidou oversees an "operating system" for cities. She compares the OS to Android: anyone can build applications to sit on top of it, and it can be programmed for use with different cities. Crucially, it's open source.

For the first episode of the UK Motherboard Show, made possible by Cisco, we visited Bristol and got a glimpse of the kind of information that might end up running through the system. We saw a control room where CCTV images of the city's streets are beamed from a wall of screens as monitors communicate with police to track suspect activity. It's easy to dismiss as Big Brother-style surveillance, with all the concerns that evokes, but in the same room others are keeping watch in a different way: Over headsets, operators check in with elderly people who have activated a personal or home alarm (often accidentally). This kind of monitoring allows them to remain independent for longer.

With the networks in place, Bristol Is Open and its partners plan to explore many different applications for connected tech. Ideas involving air quality monitors, traffic data from driverless cars, and sensors inside residential homes are all in the works.

To discuss the implications of the "internet of everything" we invited some experts in different aspects of digitization to share their thoughts. Former LulzSec hacker Jake Davis emphasised quite how dangerous it can be if a bad actor hacks your internet-enabled waste bin, while Stephen Hilton offered the local government perspective on some of the issues raised. Anab Jain, who's worked on connected prototypes as cofounder of design studio Superflux and the Internet of Things Academy, reminded us of the potential present in this technology, but only if we approach it an informed, measured, and democratic way.

The Bristol project shows that this kind of hyperconnected future is already on its way—and now's the time to decide how we want to use it.